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The Piano Lesson Essay

988 words - 4 pages

A recurring theme in American history has been that of the American Dream, the idea that anyone, regardless of race, can achieve success through hard work. In his stirring 1990 play The Piano Lesson, August Wilson uses African-American characters to embody the American Dream. Throughout the play, set in Pittsburgh in 1936, Wilson traces the economic successes of several African-American characters, such as Boy Willie and Lymon. However, Wilson’s portrayal of this apparent progress conflicts with the true historical setting. The reality between 1877 and the 1930s was that social barriers, such as Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, precluded economic progress for most African-Americans. A few black Americans such as Madam Walker, an Indiana businesswoman, made some progress, but in general there was stagnation in terms of pecuniary growth during this time period. August Wilson’s interpretation of African-American economic progress through fictional characters in The Piano Lesson is flawed because it represents a few economically successful African-Americans of the time, but fails to capture the lack of progress made by the majority between 1877 and 1930.
Most African-Americans were unable to make economic progress because of de jure and de facto social barriers during that period. In a flashback from the play, the fictional Lymon Jackson was about to earn money by hauling wood, but was ruined when “the sheriff got [him],” “[said he] was stealing wood,” and “fined [him] a hundred dollars.” Later, Mr. Stovall, a white landowner, “paid [Lymon’s] hundred dollars” and the judge forced Lymon “to work for [Stovall] to pay him back” (Wilson 37). De jure barriers precluded Lymon’s economic success and landed him in a state of insolvency. Lymon’s story typifies how economic opportunities existed for African-Americans, but no matter how hard they worked, they were mostly unable to overcome de jure and de facto barriers. In later lines, he explains that he ran away from Mr. Stovall and thus sidestepped the social hurdles that blocked his way to economic progress. By creating a character that dodges this adversity, Wilson implies that these barriers were easily avoidable, contrary to the historical reality. One of the first groups to fight these barriers was the Niagara Movement. In 1905, they drafted their Declaration of Principles, condemning “the denial of equal opportunities to [black Americans] in economic life… this amounts to peonage… and… American prejudice, helped… by iniquitous laws, is making it… difficult… to earn a… living” (Niagara). The fact that this clause existed indicates that the dearth of economic opportunity facing black Americans was a universal issue, hindering the majority of the population. By calling Lymon’s situation peonage and denouncing Jim Crow laws as iniquitous, the Movement aimed to challenge not only de jure inequality but also the de facto “American prejudice,” indicating that African-Americans had to break through both de...

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